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Taking a page from Florida advocates, Texans launch Freedom to Read to push back against book bans

The library at Sandbrock Ranch Elementary School is big and bright pictured shortly after it opened in August 2022.
Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales
DRC file photo
The library at Sandbrock Ranch Elementary School is big and bright pictured shortly after it opened in August 2022.

A group of Texas parents has a mission: Let their kids follow their curiosity in school libraries.

The Texas Freedom to Read Project launched in December to counter the statewide surge in book challenges and removals in public school libraries in the state. Organizers said they hope Denton County parents will join the effort.

A Denton resident who is associated with the new organization declined to be named for this story.

Co-director Laney Hawes said she joined Austin resident and parent Frank Strong and Katy resident and parent Anne Russey in forming the grassroots nonprofit because she was angry.

Hawes has two children attending Keller ISD schools and was concerned when a statewide movement to label some young adult titles as “pornography” and pull them from school library shelves made its way to Keller.

Hawes joined the local fight when a group challenged roughly 40 books. One of them was the graphic novel version of The Diary of Anne Frank. In Denton ISD, more than 100 books have been challenged, resulting in volunteer committee reviews. On challenge forms, critics often left a box on the form asking if the person had read the entire work blank, and several book challengers have said during open sessions at board meetings that reading the entire book or work shouldn’t be a requirement for challenging the material. However, in order to verify that material meets or violates the state penal code that forbids making obscene material available to minors, those objecting to the material would need to have read the material completely to know whether the book has literary value.

When Keller ISD solicited volunteers to join committees charged with reviewing the titles, Hawes volunteered and was part of the group that reviewed Anne Frank. The committee decided the book was appropriate for teens, and returned the book to the library.

“A new school board came in, and they took a majority of seats on our board,” Hawes said. “And the first thing they promised to do was to overturn all of the book challenge committees that had happened in the spring because they claimed that the book challenge committees were stacked with liberals. They thought it was unfair, so they didn’t trust the decisions.”

Hawes said the committees followed their district’s policy for challenges. They read the books, discussed them, answered questions. The volunteers did a lot of work, she said. Now, The Diary of Anne Frank was to be removed again. She took her frustrations to X, formerly known as Twitter.

“I was really angry,” she said. “I served on the book challenge committee. We voted to save the book. It’s now being pulled again. That’s kind of actually how it all started: on Twitter. And I ended up kind of starting to meet people across the state whose school districts are in the same boat.”

Texas Freedom to Read follows the playbook of Florida Freedom to Read. Both Florida and Texas have seen well-funded political campaigns to pressure local school districts to remove books that broach race and human sexuality. National groups such as Moms for Liberty and local political action committees such as Patriot Mobile and Southlake Families PAC have provided funding and campaign materials for school board races. The 88th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 900, called the READER Act, which would require school book vendors to create and use a rating system to label books “sexually relevant.” District 106 Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, authored the bill.

In September, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas put the new law on hold with an injunction. The state of Texas has filed a document signaling that it will appeal the injunction.

‘It’s unfortunate that Texas needs more advocacy for intellectual freedom,” said Kerol Harrod, a Texas Woman’s University professor in the School of Library and Information Studies. Harrod has spoken at an open forum during a Denton ISD school board meeting to encourage the district to promote academic inquiry and to resist censorship.

“But on the other hand, we do need it, so I’m thrilled to see people stepping up to lead and to help protect our First Amendment rights,” Harrod said.

Hawes said that parents who resist censorship have been called groomers and pedophiles online. A common accusation is that the parents want to give pornography to students.

“We don’t want our young, young elementary school children to stumble upon sexually explicit content, especially books that depict or talk about sex acts of any sort,” Hawes said. “But if my teenager has a book that talks about in a way that is not prurient — I’m not interested in prurient materials being in the library. I don’t want Fifty Shades of Grey in the library.

“But if we’re talking of come-of-age stories, and and in reality, a lot of this is sex ed, right? I actually believe that kids should have access. If they want it. Not forced upon them, not curriculum in classrooms, not saying you must read these books. I think it’s OK to have those on shelves and allow them to learn things that they are questioning and trying to understand,” Hawes said.

Hawes said it’s important to acknowledge that not all books are appropriate for all students. She said that some high school students might not be ready to read All Boys Aren’t Blue, one of the most-challenged titles across the country. The book is a memoir by a nonbinary Black author, and the book includes descriptions of sexual awakening as a gay teen.

But some high school students are ready for that kind of book, and Hawes said the campaign to remove titles has targeted books that help teen readers understand consent around their bodies and sexuality.

Harrod said the challenges and HB 900 constitute censorship, and that restricting access isn’t about just the books.

“I mean, essentially, it’s a race to the bottom between Texas and Florida on who can ban the most books, who can restrict the most access,” he said. “And you know, we’re not just stigmatizing content. We’re stigmatizing readers. And it just seems to be ushering in a new sort of tribalism around information and books. And it’s really unfortunate.”

Hawes said the next step for Freedom to Read is to develop and train teams in every school district in the state. Volunteers can submit a form online. The nonprofit will partner with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and take legal action, if warranted.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” Hawes said. “But we have the commitment to students, to our children. We’re going to protect their First Amendment rights.”